Talking to Stan Lee

Barry Forshaw writes:

R. I. P., Stan. As the first mega-budget new Spider-Man movie created a white-hot fever of anticipation in cinema audiences, I spoke to Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee (who has died at 95), the creator of such enduring heroes as Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and (of course) a certain web-slinging New Yorker. He had finally decided to reveal all in a very frank autobiography, Excelsior!

Barry Forshaw: With the new Spider-Man movie imminent, you must be undertaking a mass of appearances to promote this much-anticipated film of your creation. Are you starting to suffer from interview fatigue yet?

Stan Lee: I’m certainly in danger of that. Never in my life have I been called upon to talk to so many newspapers, magazines and TV shows about both my career and, of course, Spider-Man. At the moment it’s a dozen a day!

Barry Forshaw: And the real avalanche no doubt starts when the movie actually opens.

Stan Lee: Oh, I’m not even allowing myself to think about that – that’s too daunting.

Barry Forshaw: Excelsior!, your autobiography, is an absolutely wonderful read. It’s fascinating to learn how both you and your stellar artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created all these pop culture icons, most of which have either been the subject of recent highly successful movies (such as X-Men) or forthcoming films (such as Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk).

Stan Lee: I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Actually, it’s not really an autobiography. It is, in fact, the world’s first bio-autography: George Mair supplied a lot of the information about my career, and I pick up from his introductions. But it’s 99% me. They wanted me to do an autobiography, but I said I’d never have the time.

Barry Forshaw: The book has a nicely self-deprecating tone; it’s not just a succession of self-aggrandising “and then I created…”

Stan Lee: It was important to me that I did that. For a start, I was keen to acknowledge all the incredible talents I’d worked with over the years. Marvel Comics was not a one-man show.

Barry Forshaw: Another refreshing thing about the book is its frankness: although you can never be accused of score-settling in the book, you pull no punches. Was there ever any pressure on you (even self-applied) to write a more anodyne book?

Stan Lee: There was no pressure in one direction or another. They just said, “Write the thing”. I tried to be frank, without really insulting too many people.

Barry Forshaw: You put the record straight on many issues that have exercised people over the years. The famous conflicts with Steve Ditko (who drew Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (who drew the Fantastic Four, Thor, and so many other Marvel characters) are handled with disarming honesty. Both men expressed resentment at the media perception of you as the sole creator, but you were always ready to acknowledge their considerable achievements.

Barry Forshaw: I’m so glad that comes across in the book. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should mention this at all, but, as you say, it’s been an issue for many people over the years, and I really did feel it was time to set the record straight.

Barry Forshaw: Both Kirby and Ditko complained that it was always you talking to the media when Marvel Comics became such an astonishing cultural phenomenon. But, as you say, the personalities of both men did not lend themselves to public appearances, and Ditko in particular rarely gave interviews. But you were doing your best to promote the company and the characters.

Stan Lee: Absolutely. In fact, I did a radio show with Jack Kirby years ago when our characters appeared to be achieving an amazing popularity. Jack began to say that we were bigger than DC Comics (who owned Superman and Batman) and that we were going to obliterate them – something along those lines. And I was kicking Jack under the table, trying to signal to him, “Jack, nobody likes to hear people talk that way!”. I said to the interviewer, “We’re like a little puppy dog yapping at the heels of the big guy” – I suppose this ties in with what you said earlier about self-deprecation. But Jack never really understood that there are certain ways you conduct yourself in an interview so that you don’t sound like a conceited braggart. And it’s true that I did get many invitations to do such things. But when I suggested that Jack or Steve come along, most of the time they — Kirby and Ditlko — weren’t interested.

Barry Forshaw: You go on record in the book as unequivocally acknowledging them as the co-creators of these great characters.

Stan Lee: Of course! And so they were. These were tremendously talented men with whom I worked for many years – long before the superhero era in fact.

Barry Forshaw: Of course, your career, as you mention, extends way back beyond super-powered characters in colourful costumes. You created some of the most ingenious comics in all genres in the 1950s: horror, science fiction, war books.

Stan Lee: That was in an era when you really didn’t admit that you wrote for comic books. The respectability and acclaim came much later. But all of us would soft-peddle what we did if we were asked at parties. There was, of course, the hysteria about the horror comics, but the Atlas line – Marvel’s predecessor – was relatively mild compared to the gruesomeness of, say, EC Comics. Certainly when the superhero era really took off, our readers became older, we became phenomenally popular on campuses and we were being profiled in everything from <I>Rolling Stone</I> to <I>Time</I> magazine had many invitations to speak at colleges. We began to be written about overseas: in England, Italy and Japan. Nobody was reading my horror comics around the world.

Barry Forshaw: Actually, you’re wrong about that. English port cities such as Liverpool had masses of American comics such as your work from that period brought over as ballast; many a schoolboy in England read your pre-superhero stories.

Stan Lee: Really? I had no idea. That was before letter columns, so we never heard from any English readers.

Barry Forshaw: Does it not seem strange to you that these characters you created 40 years ago have now taken on a life of their own? Somebody else other than you writes the Spider-Man movie, or the new Daredevil film with Ben Affleck. Do you still regard them as your “babies”?

Barry Forshaw: You know, it’s a funny thing. I never regarded them as my “babies”. When you don’t own something – when somebody else makes the decisions as to what to do with the properties – you lose the feeling that they are your creations. I was just the guy who wrote the stories; they caught on – and I’m glad they did – but I never felt all that possessive about them, because I never really possessed them.

Barry Forshaw: So you were happy to regard yourself as a “pen for hire”? Your book implies that you’ve been treated pretty shabbily at times by the people you’ve worked for.

Stan Lee: Well, I never became wealthy. I was always treated well, and rather respectfully, and I earned a respectable salary. If I made a trip abroad, I could go first class and charge it to the company, and my time was pretty much my own. And I didn’t have to answer too much to any one person, except in a general way. If I decided I wanted to spend time lecturing about Marvel at colleges, I could. I was like the boss, without being the boss. Creatively, I was in charge of everything while I was there, but I wasn’t in charge of the big things, like what we should do with the characters.

Barry Forshaw: After the success of the DC-related Superman and Batman movies, people would often say, “Why did Stan Lee allow that indifferent Captain America movie to be made?”… And why was the first Fantastic Four movie an unreleasable item that nobody’s ever seen?

Stan Lee: Those weren’t my decisions. But I suppose it’s inevitable that people would assume I had something to do with the mishandling of the Marvel legacy in the movies in the past. But, by the same token, it’ll be nice if I get a bit of credit now that the Spider-Man and X-Men movies have comprehensively reversed that trend!